Recently, I traveled to New York where the plan was for me to connect with one of my colleagues and then travel to visit a client. Since we were arriving from different airports and since we would be needing a car, it made the most sense for us to meet up at the car rental counter. I was amused thinking of the reactions I would likely get from people as I, a blind guy, asked for directions to car rental. The reaction I got from one guy though really made me stop and think, he said, “oh, you must be going to rent one of those new autonomous cars, that’s got to be so neat.”. To him, the idea that a blind person might be renting a vehicle wasn’t very far fetched at all. I casually mentioned my destination to a few other people just to see what kind of reaction I might get. Strangely enough, the only somewhat negative reaction came from a woman who was all concerned that I could get hurt crossing the street which needed to be crossed in order to get to car rental. My take-away from the day? There remain people skeptical that blind people can independently cross streets, but the idea that blind people could possibly be renting cars is no longer the unbelievable concept it might once have been.
On July 26, I received yet another support Email saying in part,
Thank you for contacting Weight Watchers. My name is [Name redacted] and I will be more than happy to assist you with troubleshooting your application.
I do apologize for this inconvenience. Your email has been escalated to me.
In order for us to be sure we offer you the best support for Weight Watchers Mobile, please answer the following questions for us:
* Are you using a mobile device or a computer?
* What is your device model and Operating System?
* If you are using an iPhone, iPad or iPod, please confirm whether you are using the Weight Watchers Mobile app for iPhone App or accessing our mobile site http://a.weightwatchers.com/ ?
* If you are using a computer, what internet browser are you using.
* If you have not already done so in your initial Email to us, please let us know what error you are receiving.
* If your issue is technical in nature and you have not already done so in your initial Email to us, please describe as best you can what is occurring and what steps you took prior to running into the problem. Also please provide any error messages you may have received.
As soon as we receive your response we will investigate on your behalf.
OK, clearly, they’re still confused. That said, this issue is obviously on someone’s radar as there most recent app update has fixed the SmartPoint values reading on foods. The daily and weekly totals still don’t read correctly, but at least now I am no longer disillusioned by chocolate cake having a 0 point value. 🙂
While the title of this post may seem a bit dramatic, I assure you it isn’t, at least not to me. In a nut shell, the situation is this: I pay for an app or service, use the app or service and then, with one update, it suddenly becomes impossible to use the app or service any longer. This may not seem like that big a deal to those who are able to see, but for those of us who depend on VoiceOver or other assistive technologies, it’s a situation that is very real.
As many of my social media followers know, I’ve been a member of Weight Watchers for quite a few months. After all, I can definitely stand to lose a few pounds and I’ve seen the program be successful with many who have benefited greatly from it. I was also very encouraged to learn that Weight Watchers has a page dedicated to accessibility which says in part::
In our ongoing commitment to help as many people as possible to lose weight, including those with disabilities, Weight Watchers is dedicated to improving accessibility for people with visual impairments in the following ways.
The page then goes on to describe how to use the Weight Watchers online service with the JAWS screen reader, with VoiceOver and Safari, how to request information in alternative formats, how to optimize the Tracker for accessibility and much more. I felt their commitment to accessibility to be genuine and in all fairness, their web site and iOS app worked extremely well, that is until the latest version.
For those unfamiliar with Weight Watchers, the program is essentially a points-based system where by individuals are allocated a number of points to be used throughout the day and foods are also given a point value, healthier foods receiving lower values than non-healthy foods. A person can eat whatever they wish, the goal being to stay within their allocated number of points. In short, it’s totally fine to have a big slab of chocolate cake, but because that slab of cake has a high point value, a smarter decision might be to opt for different, more healthier foods. Using their iOS app, it’s possible to look up a food’s point value and to track it against the daily total. Not only is this an efficient system, but the app can be instrumental in making healthy food choices by allowing the user to look up point values before deciding what to eat.
Like many of their customers, I update the Weight Watcher’s app regularly. I certainly didn’t anticipate any problems when installing the latest version described as:
What’s New in Version 4.9.1
Fixed an issue with the barcode scanner.
We’re always working to improve the app and maximize your experience — thanks for sharing your thoughts so we can make it even better. More exciting improvements to come!
Imagine my surprise when, after installing this harmless-looking update, all the point values suddenly started reading as ‘0’?
After getting over my initial euphoria over chocolate cake suddenly having a ‘0’ point value, I realized that the problem was in fact an accessibility one. For whatever reason, VoiceOver is no longer able to read point values accurately. What this means is that in search results, when adding foods, when reviewing meals and anywhere else a point value might present itself, it is simply read as ‘0’. Given the critical part the point values play in the program, this is a real problem. How can I utilize a system based on points when I can’t read the actual points?
So, what to do? My first step was to utilize live chat functionality which is built directly into the Weight Watchers app. This chat system is pleasantly accessible and since it’s available around the clock, I thought it would be a quick way to describe the issue and see if it had already been reported. After explaining the situation to the chat representative, my chat was “transferred”; I never knew a chat could be transferred. Anyway, I get a new representative to whom I again explain the situation only to have my chat disconnected. By this point my hands hurt from all the typing in addition to my already-mounting frustration, so I figure the next best thing to do is to contact them via the web site. I do this, being sure to mention that I’m blind, this is an accessibility issue followed by a descriptive explanation of the problem. Over a day later, I receive this response:
Thank you for contacting Weight Watchers. My name is [name redacted] and I’m sorry about the challenges that you have encountered in accessing your account through the WW Mobile App. Rest assured, that I will help you with your concern.
I appreciate your subscription with our Online Plus plan.
We want to take this opportunity to thank you for trying our site and for making us a part of your weight loss journey.
Please try the following troubleshooting steps:
1. Please log out from the App and log back in.
2. If that does not work, force close the App if you have an Android device. Then relaunch the App. For iOS, close the App by double-clicking on the home button, swipe up on app snapshot, and click home button. Then relaunch the App.
3. If steps 1 and 2 do not work, delete the App and reinstall. Please note that recently scanned items are stored locally on the device and will be lost when you uninstall. If you would like to keep a recently scanned item, please save it as a favorite.
The Mobile App requires iOS 8.0 or later. It is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. For Android users, it requires Android 4.0.3 and up. While it might also work on an Android tablet, it is not yet fully supported and may not be compatible.
Let us know how things go! If the troubleshooting steps do not help, please reply here with details about what you are experiencing. We’ll investigate further and reach out should we need to gather additional details.
Clearly the rep misunderstands what’s meant here by “accessibility” despite my having mentioned blind, VoiceOver, and referencing their own accessibility page in my request. No matter, I decide to be a trooper and try all the steps which, as expected, don’t accomplish anything at all. I’ve sent an even more descriptive reply and as of this writing, have heard absolutely nothing.
So why the dramatic post title? It’d be one thing if this were a situation pertaining to one specific company or app, but this is a situation that occurs again and again. Right now on my phone, I have an entire folder of apps that fall into this category, apps that I either want to use or that I’ve come to depend on which have become partially or completely useless to me. Some of these apps are health-related, some are social and more disturbingly, some are productivity apps that help me maintain employment. The company may change, the app or web site may change, but what it all amounts to is that I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated and navigating the realm of tech support when, like everyone else, I just want to live my life. It’s especially sad in this case though, given Weight Watcher’s
“ongoing commitment to help as many people as possible to lose weight, including those with disabilities,”.
Before I’m dismissed as just another hater, let me say that like many, I couldn’t wait for the Apple Watch. I thought the idea was cool, the tech was cool, the possible use cases were cool. To that end, I waited up half the night to pre-order the watch just as soon as Apple listed it on its site. I counted down the days (and eventually the hours) until its arrival. I took half the day off, so that I would be sure not to miss the UPS delivery driver and I spent the weekend after receiving it excitedly installing and setting up apps. Since then, I’ve attempted to use the Apple Watch daily, I’ve listened to numerous podcasts (both disability-related and non) on tips and tricks to make use of the watch and after all that, it remains a struggle at times not to just throw the damned thing across the room.
So why this post? I still think the watch represents really cool tech and despite my desire to throw it, I think it’s even worth all I’ve gone through. I’m happy to be an Apple Watch owner. My hope is that in describing the challenges I’m experiencing, others will identify as having similar experiences or even better, others will have solutions, solutions that can move this tec from being cool, to actually being useful for me. So, let’s get to it.
- Sluggishness: The watch seems incredibly sluggish. Whether it’s waking it up to simply check the time, finding an app, launching an app or doing something within an app, it seems to take forever. Sometimes I have to try not to tap the screen in a “hurry up already” gesture.
- Loading, loading, loading, loading…: Sometimes, when I launch an app, I get the app as expected, but often, I get this “loading” graphic. This seems to happen somewhat randomly, but when it does, there seems to be no hope of getting anything done. I’ve tried forcing the app to quit and relaunching it, but this has yet to ever fix anything. Eventually, my only recourse is to perform the task on my phone which, I could have done initially.
- Hearing me is not the same as listening to me: I press and hold the digital crown, speak a command, let go of the digital crown, get the little vibration that seems to mean “got it,” and … nothing at all. So I think OK, maybe I didn’t speak clearly or maybe there was background noise, so I go through the process again and again, nothing. So I think maybe it’s just not able to contact whatever it needs to contact on the network, however, I find that it’s connected and my phone is connected and Siri works just fine on my phone. By this point, I’ve gone from trying to do something on the watch to trying to troubleshoot potential connection issues with Apple. Sometimes restarting the watch fixes this, sometimes it doesn’t help at all.
- Placing a call doesn’t always place a call: This is somewhat related to the above point in that I’ll ask the watch to call someone, it will say calling so-and-so, but nothing ever happens. Eventually, I tap the screen to see if anything has happened only to be greeted by the watch face. It’s almost like the watch is saying, “huh, was I supposed to do something?”
Excepting calendar and activity, every notification has the same tone and vibration pattern: On the phone, I often can tell what app is notifying me because apps are not forced to use Apple’s default notification tone. Indeed some apps even allow me to set a specific notification tone within the app. Not so on the watch where every notification uses the same tone/vibration. Put another way, when I hear the notification tone, I don’t know if it’s something important like a breaking weather alert, or something that can wait like FaceBook wondering if I know someone or other. The net result is that I often ignore notifications and then have a pile of them to go through later, or just miss things entirely. To try and address this, I’ve stopped many notifications from going to my watch, but isn’t that part of the reason for having it in the first place?
- Sometimes, I just want to check the time: OK, to be fair, this might be made easier if I were to use a different watch face or fewer complications or something, but I’m itemizing it here because it drives me crazy and may be doing the same to others. Essentially, there are times when I just want to, well, check the time. So I tap my watch screen and after waiting for it to do its wake-up thing, it reads me the current temperature, or my next appointment, or my battery status, everything but the current time. So I try and flick through the watch face, but that just tells me I have unread notifications. I eventually give up and figure that time is just an elusion anyway.
- Where’d that app go anyway?: I’ve tried multiple ways to organize my watch apps to make them efficient and easy to find. I’ve dragged them here, I’ve dragged them there, I’ve uninstalled them and tried reinstalling in the order I want to see them and yet it seems that no matter what I try, the watch eventually mocks me by deciding to just do its own thing with my app organization. It’s very probable that I don’t have a good understanding of the Apple Watch app layout, so if someone has a good description of this, I’d be happy to check it out. In the end though, I need to quickly be able to open an app and not spend a minute looking for it, or tell the watch to open it and hope it’s not one of those times where the watch is “out to lunch” somewhere.
- I could spend half my life deleting things: So this is only in part a criticism of the watch, but only in part. If I receive an iMessage, it goes to all my Apple devices. Now, I can easily delete it from my iPhone and iPad. On the watch though, I have to open messages, long tap on the thread, choose delete, and confirm that I really do want to do this delete thing. Since there’s sluggishness throughout this entire process, every step takes quite a bit of time. Way more complicated and far less efficient than on other devices where I can delete a thread with just two gestures. This probably applies to other apps as well, but Messages is the app I notice this happening in the most.
- Apps that seem to do nothing: OK, I can’t blame this on the watch, but there are a few apps that seem to serve no purpose what so ever. For example, if a messaging app lets you view messages but not reply or otherwise interact with them, what’s the point? In such situations, is it best to leave the app installed in the hopes it’ll eventually do something, or is it better to uninstall it and just mirror notifications?
Again, the above frustrations represent those that I face on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that the watch is something to stay away from and definitely doesn’t detract from the “coolness factor”. I would love to know though, am I alone? What frustrations, if any, are others facing? And, most important, does anyone reading this have ideas of things I might try?
Too often, we are quick to criticize developers for not doing enough to make their apps accessible. Today, I’d like to extend my thanks to one who has consistently embraced accessibility.
Threema is a messaging application that offers end-to-end encryption. In English, this basically means that your chats via Threema can only be read by their intended recipient. As Threema puts it on their web site, they offer “seriously secure messaging.” What makes Threema stand out to me personally though is their dedication to accessibility. Not only do they constantly seem to improve the experience for VoiceOver users, but they are very transparent about it going so far as to call it out in their release notes. And why shouldn’t they? Making stuff accessible does require hard work and having done it, this is something they totally should be bragging up. So thank you, Threema, for being awesome.
Well, it’s that time of year already, that magical, mystical time that we call CSUN. CSUN is the 31st Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. It’s a place where learning is shared, ideas are conceived, people throughout the field of accessibility network and — one of my favorite things — where new gadgets and gizmos are often unveiled. I’m extremely fortunate to work for an employer who has been willing to send me to this conference of awesome and I’m very excited about the opportunity to attend and to present. That said, the expectation is that I come away from CSUN full of new knowledge that I can utilize to better help my clients reach their goals. So, while you and I may be at the same conference, meeting up might be a challenge since my primary reason for going is to attend sessions and learn. To that end though, I thought I’d post the sessions I’m currently planning to attend, so that if our paths cross, we can at least say hi.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
- Using Visual ARIA to Physically See and Learn How ARIA Works
Visual ARIA allows for ARIA to be visually observable to aid in the learning process and to convey when ARIA is incomplete or being misused.
- Create Your Accessible Taste: McDonald’s Accessible Kiosk Initiative
A case study on McDonald’s effort to make their Create Your Taste kiosks accessible
- Dueling Mobile Note: I’m a presenter. 🙂
As accessibility efforts intensify across mobile platforms, More and more users with disabilities are questioning which mobile solution is the “right choice” for them.
- Google Apps Accessibility
Learn more about the latest accessibility improvements to Google Apps
- The Mind’s Eye: Perception Through the Mind of 5 Visually Impaired Personas Note: I am a presenter. 🙂
This presentation will demonstrate/discuss the perception of visual content by 5 Personas: Dyslexia, Low-Vision, Partial Lifetime Blindness, Accidental/Recent Blindness, and Lifetime Blindness.
- Touchscreen Accessibility in Self-Service Terminals
Touchscreens on self-service terminals can cause accessibility challenges. We present the results of a study developing an accessible input method for a touchscreen ATM.
- The Possibilities are I-infinite: Tactile Overlays for the iPad
This presentation will provide participants with the skills and tools they need to begin making tactile overlays. Various examples of activities and applications will be given.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
- Interactive Maps, from Google to Bing, How Do You Make Them Accessible?
Making interactive maps accessible is much more than just provided text locations of different points. Gian Wild explains exactly what needs to be done.
- Accessibility Overview of Amazon’s Devices, Starting with Our $49.99 Tablet
Demonstration of the latest in Amazon device accessibility, including Alexa and Echo, Kindle E-Readers, Fire TV, and our Fire Tablets with VoiceView starting at $49.99
- An Appliance Display Reader for People with Visual Impairments
We describe ongoing research at Smith-Kettlewell on the Display Reader project to enable blind and visually impaired people to read appliance displays.
- Manufacturers’ Device Showcase
Visit the Device Showcase to see the latest phones, tablets and more! The Showcase is open from 11 am to 1 pm daily. This is your opportunity to meet with device manufacturers and sample their products.
- Is it A Link Or A Button? The Ultimate Showdown Note: I think I’m an unlisted presenter. If not, I’ll be the guy in the audience with extremely strong opinions on the subject. 🙂
We will bring together 5 experts, 10 scenarios and have them privately decide whether the link or button role is more appropriate for each.
- Chrome & Chrome OS Accessibility
Learn about the built-in accessibility features within Chrome & Chrome OS. We’ll also demo braille support in Chrome, our screenreader ChromeVox, & Chrome on Android.
- How Wells Fargo is Improving Access for People with Disabilities
Learn about Wells Fargo Bank’s overall strategy for people with disabilities and improved access to banking services, including launching JAWS in over 6,000 bank locations.
- Design Thinking at Google – Methodologies & Mindsets for A11y Innovation
Join us to learn about the Design Thinking Framework and how it helps to drive user centered design thinking in the Accessibility context.
Friday, March 25, 2016
- Grommet: An Accessible Open-Source User Experience Framework
Be amongst the first to learn about Grommet, a modern UX framework created by Hewlett Packard that allows for rapid development of accessible web applications.
- Mobile Testing: Through the Eyes of a Screen Reader User and A11Y ExpertNote: I’m a presenter and in fact, due to last minute scheduling conflicts, I’ll likely be the only presenter. Someone please bring me some black coffee? 🙂
A screen reader user and A11y Expert will demonstrate performing an A11Y assessment on mobile devices. They will demonstrate the Pod Methodology, techniques and tools.
- Accessibility Support Baselines: Balancing User Needs Against Test Effort
Approaches for creating an enterprise support baseline and test strategy in light of changes in the desktop assistive technology market and mobile device fragmentation.
- Digital Accessibility at Small businesses
Highlighting differences about accessibility at small businesses compared to enterprises, this presentation will focus on increasing awareness and scaling accessibility at this important, forgotten sector.
- OpenAIR Challenge: Mentoring the MentorsNote: I’m not an official presenter, but as I was a mentor, Joseph Karr O’Connor asked me if I might attend. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Joseph and this entire initiative, so it will be my honor to do so.
The Open Accessible Internet Rally (OpenAIR) has a mentorship program. This presentation will focus on the experience of the mentors.
- Strategies for Implementing Accessible Online Media
This presentation will cover web accessibility laws and guidelines as well as how to apply these standards when creating accessible online media at your institution.
Receptions and evening things
CSUN boasts a number of receptions and other evening events and I’m not sure yet which of those I’ll be attending. Traditionally, Deque holds an evening reception and that I’ll definitely be attending, just as soon as I figure out where and when it is. Whether at a presentation, a reception, lunch or coffee somewhere in the midst of all that, CSUN is a great opportunity to connect and I’m looking forward to meeting as many people as possible. If you want to connect, please reach out to me on Twitter, or comment here and I’ll gladly exchange contact info.
Looking forward to a great CSUN16.
My mouth dropped open in disbelief when a friend, Grace, told me about an app designed to help the blind stop rocking back and forth, something that many blind people do. There’s lots of reasons for the rocking that I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say it’s one of those habits that parents, educators and other adults try to curb in children in an effort to help them be more “socially acceptable.” Well move over parents, educators and other adults, because as Apple would say, “there’s an app for that.”
Brought to us by the New Mexico Commission for the Blind:
iFidget is an app designed to help people with a range of habits from rocking back and forth to restless leg syndrome or even just constant fidgeting. It has an incredibly simple design, but it has a very big future.
iFidget is designed to be used while you’re sitting. It can be set to vibrate or play a sound when it detects that you aren’t sitting still. iFidget attempts to tell the difference between somebody who is rocking, fidgeting or moving constantly vs somebody who is just shifting their weight at a table.
The description goes on from there describing how the app can be a “therapeutic tool” that can help people who subconsciously engage in this behavior and wish to stop. So how does it work? Basically, the app runs on an iOS device and when motion is detected, it vibrates to provide the user with a subtle reminder, presumably to be still. The app can also play a sound effect if vibration isn’t an option or isn’t desired. In addition, the app’s sensitivity can be adjusted to ensure that a greater or lesser amount of motion is needed to trigger the alert. But wait, that’s not all. iFidget also gives the user — or someone working with the user — the ability to see a graph showing just how much rockin’ is happenin’.
As a long time hard-core rocker myself, I had mixed feelings when I heard about iFidget, the first one being absolute horror that kids could potentially be forced to use this app in school settings “for their own good.” Would a child see this as a gentle reminder or a means of negative reinforcement? And what about the potential humiliation of needing to share the graph with an educator or therapist of some kind? Second, the app just doesn’t seem very practical to me. I’ve been using it throughout the day and initially found that the app alerted me to any motion including when I’d engage in such socially unacceptable tasks as reaching for my coffee cup. Adjusting the sensitivity helped with this, however, the app would still alert me to major motion such as my standing up to walk into another room. In fact, I got quite the massage walking from my basement office to my upstairs kitchen. The app also doesn’t run in the background and can’t be configured to run when the iOS device starts up. Oh yes and if the device’s screen locks, the app stops working as well. One other discovery I made is that if I put the device in my pants pocket, I could rock with my upper body all I wanted — how long before kids figure that one out?
I posted a link to the app on Twitter and the response was swift and immediate.
— Graceek (@arwen3791) December 30, 2015
That’s funny. I never needed an app. https://t.co/9JbKzOtF4c
— Allison Meloy (@technocounselor) December 30, 2015
@steveofmaine. Maybe I'm going to get some flack for this, but I don't get what the objection is. I think it could be a good thing.
— LadyMem (@LadyMem) December 30, 2015
@steveofmaine I think an app like this can help give awareness and ultimately control back to the blind person.
— Lisa Salinger (@lisasali) December 30, 2015
The tweets go on and on and on … the above is just a small sampling … clearly this is an emotionally charged issue. While I’m certainly not opposed to apps that help people self-improve, I remain concerned about the potential long-term effects this could have on blind kids if forced to used this app. Oh and one more thing, while the description may claim that this app “has a very big future,” the app itself hasn’t been updated since November 20, 2014. So, positive or negative, what do you think?
Now that Markus has turned 16, he’s wanting to find a job, after all, what 16-year-old can’t use some extra money? :). Back in my day, this was an exciting time and there was never a shortage of things a 16-year-old could do: papers needed delivering, restaurants needed servers, stores needed folks to stock shelves, and fast food places needed people for just about everything. While many of these jobs still exist, actually applying for them is nowhere near as easy as it used to be. “Go online” they say, “fill out our online application.” While the going online part is easy for kids of just about any age, figuring out how to complete the forms just so they’ll be excepted by the online job systems can be a real challenge. For example, the applications are designed to capture education/experience/previous jobs and so forth, but if you’re just starting out, what to actually fill in? Unfortunately, leaving many of these fields blank is not always an option meaning that without filling something in, the form can’t actually be submitted.
I certainly don’t envy today’s kids just trying to get a start. While the challenge used to be getting up the nerve to approach a potential employer and asking for a job, the challenge today’s kids have is figuring out how to successfully navigate the complex and impersonal online job applications, which are not at all geared toward helping someone get a Fresh start, in the hopes that their information will be routed to a human somehow somewhere. I definitely wish Markus and all of today’s kids the best of luck.
This is a rather technical article, but if you’ve ever wondered why screen readers sometimes read one type of information, such as a label on a form field and sometimes another, such as a description, this may help explain.
The Text Alternative Computation Over the years, there has been a lot of confusion about the W3C Text Alternative Computation and how this works, especially when influenced by the addition of CSS and ARIA attributes. As a bit of forewarning, this article is not primarily meant for general web developers, though having an understanding of …Read more
As a member of the accessibility community, I have the pleasure of getting to work with a wide variety of folks, all of whom approach accessibility with a somewhat different mindset. There are those, for example, who feel that accessibility is more of a technical challenge, an exercise in ensuring mechanisms exist for technologies like screen readers to understand what’s happening on any given web page. Others approach accessibility from a more user-centric standpoint, can users of all abilities understand and control the page? Most though, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. As I write this today, however, I’m approaching accessibility from the perspective of an extremely frustrated blind guy who just wants to get something done and can’t.
Like many Americans, I’m opting to change my health insurance coverage due to rate increases with my current plan. My state, Minnesota, has a resource, a marketplace, called MNsure which allows people in my situation to search for and compare plans. Health insurance is pretty overwhelming, what with the myriad of options out there, and so I was excited to give this resource a try. Unfortunately, the more important aspects of the site are virtually unusable by screen reader users, a situation ironically caused by poor implementation of standards that were designed to help sites like this be more accessible in the first place.
A super non-techie explanation of ARIA and why it matters here
According to the W3C, the folks that make the standards that enable us to have a World Wide Web, ARIA is:
To put this in plainer language, this means that ARIA provides a way for developers to take really complex webpages, such as those with constantly updating information, and make them more understandable to screen reader users without sacrificing visual design or functionality. Pretty cool right? One of the more powerful aspects of ARIA gives developers the ability to force a screen reader to output specific information immediately, even if the screen reader is currently in the process of reading something else on the page. While this might come in handy in certain cases, such as a chat or messaging application, it can have a serious impact on a user’s ability to read page content since the screen reader will interrupt whatever it’s doing in order to read whatever information the developer wants to force through. Getting back to MNsure (remember MNsure?), they are using an ARIA technique to provide extra information about links and form fields throughout the site. Examples include
- “enter date in mm/dd/yyyy format”
- “you can limit the number of plan listings”
- “You can view more features about this plan”,
- “clicking this link will take you to the provider’s web site where you can search for a provider”.
While all of these messages provide additional information and context, MNsure has implemented this in such a way that this additional text immediately interrupts the screen reader when encountered. This means that when reading through a page, I hear things like “You can view more features and details about this plan” but I have no idea what plan it’s actually talking about. The reason for this is that while the screen reader would normally read the link correctly, ARIA is being used to interrupt the screen reader from reading the link, so that it can read the descriptive messaging in its place. “Enter date in mm/dd/yyyy format” is helpful to know, but not when it’s done in such a way that prevents the screen reader from telling me what kind of date it wants in the first place — does it want my birth date? Coverage date? Today’s date?
What we have here is a situation where something that was developed to enhance accessibility, was used inappropriately and has wound up totally degrading it. Unfortunately, as the end-user, I don’t have a way to prevent this from happening. Put another way, even though it’s my screen reader, the developer has more control over it than I do .
Where to go from here
When things like this happen, and they sadly happen more often than one might think, it’s hard to figure out where to go, or what to do. When I mentioned this particular situation to a friend, their response was, “why don’t you submit feedback, so that the issue can be fixed?” That’s a great idea and normally I love submitting feedback and doing what I can to help make the web a more accessible destination, however right now, I’m needing to shop for insurance and I really don’t want to get side tracked by trying to figure out how to submit feedback. Put another way, yes I can do this but right now, this isn’t going to help me complete the task that brought me to the site in the first place. So I call, and I wait on hold because as much as my call might be important to them, I can’t help but feel that my experience as a blind user of their site is certainly not.
I mention in the title of this post that this gives me one more reason to hate ARIA. As I write this, I realize that it’s not ARIA that I truly hate, but the hap-hazard way it’s often implemented. When I think of ARIA, I think of an extremely sharp knife. When used properly, it can be a fantastic aid, but when used incorrectly, it can cause incredible harm. ARIA has the potential to give screen reader users access to all kinds of dynamic information. If used incorrectly though, it can cause incredible harm as evidenced by my particular experience. If you’re a screen reader user, I would encourage you to learn more about ARIA and the kind of control it allows developers to wield over your interaction with web applications. Maybe not an in-depth technical understanding, but enough to possibly know what’s going on when things aren’t behaving the way you might expect — maybe I should do a blog series on this? If you’re a developer, please please please be careful with ARIA. Yes it can provide fantastic solutions to complex accessibility problems, but it can also create complex accessibility problems where simple solutions would suffice. Understand the impact of what you’re doing, there’s plenty of resources out there to help with this including many kind folks who use the technology every day and can sey “hey, this isn’t working the way I expect it to.” So please ask, learn, grow and help make whatever experiences you’re creating on the web usable and enjoyable by all.